Sterling Influences: Early Spring Stalks
Asparagus, in earlier centuries going by such names as “sparrow grass” and “sparagrass,” was cultivated by the Romans as early as 200 BCE. Though consumption waned during the Middle Ages, it was revived during the reign of Louis XIV. Thomas Jefferson sowed asparagus seeds at Monticello, and noted in his writings the vegetable’s first appearance each spring. Mary Jefferson Randolph’s directions for cooking the dish were quite detailed, from scraping the stalks and correctly tying the bundles, to timing the cooking so as to bring out their “…true flavour and colour,” noting that “a minute or two more boiling destroys both.”1 The appearance of this harbinger of spring was cause for much celebration, and specialized servers were designed to enhance the experience.
The earliest asparagus servers date from the mid 18th century, and were scissor-like tongs with narrow corrugated arms. As the 18th century gave way to the 19th, asparagus servers widened, taking the form of bow-back tongs with a collar or yoke – a form more commonly seen on the market today.
Hinged asparagus tongs fitted with a spring appeared in England, on the European Continent and in the United states by the mid 19th century, and by the late 19th century American silversmiths were making a very practical fork-shaped asparagus server. These asparagus forks usually, but not always, had blunt tines, to prevent tearing of the delicate stalks, as well as a shovel-like curve.
Specialty silver trays were eventually made for the serving of asparagus: These were rectangular or oblong in form, with a pierced liner which kept the stalks from sitting in liquid. And although it is quite correct to eat asparagus with the fingers, individual asparagus tongs were introduced in the 19th century, by silversmiths catering to either the self-conscious or to those Victorians wanting to demonstrate Man’s superiority over all other creatures.
Hot or chilled, served plain, marinated, or with a rich hollondaise sauce, asparagus has been celebrated for centuries.
— Joseph P. Brady, Silver Historian, 2009
1 Dining at Monticello, edited by Damon Lee Fowler, p 61